Bilingual newsroom unites over diversity series
Screengrab from The Houstons Chronicle’s The Million series.
Allison Griner is a freelance journalist and a 2013-2014 fellow with the International Reporting Program. Follow her on Twitter at @alligriner.
A man stood up, newspaper in hand. “I’m a man of faith. I have a family. I have a college degree I’m here legally. I have a good job. I pay my taxes,” Maria Carrillo remembers him saying.
He held the newsprint up high. “I don’t see myself in your paper.”
The town hall had gathered minority groups together with representatives from the local newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot. At the time, Carrillo was an editor there. The man’s words rattled her emotions.
Years later, Carrillo would find herself in a different city, in a different newsroom. But an opportunity would arise that would allow her to act on what the man said — and portray the everyday diversity around her.
Harris County, Texas, is home to over 4.4 million people, one in four of whom are foreign-born. Carrillo arrived there in 2014 to work as the enterprise editor at the Houston Chronicle, one of the U.S.’s largest newspapers.
Some of the first meetings she attended were about bettering the paper’s coverage of the Hispanic community. An idea started to take shape. Why not profile all of the million-plus immigrants living in and around Houston?
The series that emerged, aptly entitled The Million by investigative reporter and editor Lise Olsen, set out to portray “the diversity that shapes this city.” The Chronicle and its Spanish-language sister publication, La Voz, joined forces to tell immigrants’ stories, publishing them both in English and in Spanish.
The yearlong series launched in March, and throughout the year, reporters have continued to expand its coverage. Upcoming stories include investigations into how immigrants may impact voting patterns and the education system.
“Part of our mission is to educate and to hold a mirror up to this place, the community that we cover,” Carrillo said. “There’s a lot to be said for us needing to make people feel like we see them, like we cover them and like they’re a part of the news everyday — and not just for bad things, obviously.”
Historically, American news media has struggled to represent immigrants accurately. The National Hispanic Media Coalition, for instance, credits media bias with creating a skewed view of immigration in the Hispanic community. Its 2012 survey found that “over 30 percent of respondents believed a majority of Hispanics (50 percent or greater) were undocumented.”
For Carrillo, the aim wasn’t to dwell on criminality — but the series wouldn’t shy away from it either. The Million includes light-hearted features on immigrant soccer leagues and schoolyard acceptance, alongside harder-edged pieces about human smuggling, persecution, and war.
“It’s important to not feel put off by media that’s trying to take a fair look at what goes on around here, good or bad. I mean, our series has talked about human trafficking. That’s not a happy issue,” Carrillo said. “But hey, that’s America. You need to know that too.”
As she embarked on this project, Carrillo realized the subject matter would evoke a certain amount of xenophobia. “I have been a journalist for 30 years, and it’s always there,” she said. “You cannot write about immigrants or refugees without having some of those voices come out.”
But that didn’t deter community members from participating in the series. “They were just happy we were asking about them,” Carrillo said. Individuals, religious groups and community organizations pitched in to help find sources.
Language was often a barrier, but Carrillo said all the immigrants were “very, very receptive and willing to work” with the reporters. Often, interviewees would call on friends and relatives to assist with communication.
Fourteen of the reporters and one photojournalist banded together to create a multimedia feature for The Million called “Traces of Home.” Its layout seemed simple at first: pair 14 written stories with photo portraits and short videos. In each story, an immigrant would get the chance to share a memento from home.
But when it came down to taking the photos, snags arose. Some were practical problems, others personal. One man couldn’t find the item he’d wanted to show — the high school diploma he had escaped the Republic of Congo with. Meanwhile, an Iraqi woman was fine having her teapot photographed, but was uncomfortable standing in front of the camera herself.
Another man didn’t like the way his profile had been accompanied by the modern-day Vietnamese flag. “He left South Vietnam as the Communists were taking over, and it took ten years to get his family out,” Carrillo explained. “He wanted us to use the flag of South Vietnam, of what had been his country when he was there.” The team found solutions in all three cases.
Carrillo said she fully understood how sensitive some of these stories could be. After all, she and many of her colleagues hailed from immigrant families themselves. Carrillo’s own parents consider themselves exiles, having fled Communist-controlled Cuba in 1961.
“It feels personal for us too. These are our stories as well,” she said. “I know the same things happened with me in my family. You end up feeling this great sense of gratitude, I think, for this country and the opportunity to be here.”
But Carrillo had to balance that gratitude with a sober look at the obstacles that face immigrants. She was careful to keep her love of country in check, so that the articles didn’t turn into “this singular narrative where America is the promised land that everyone’s reaching for.”
“As journalists we have to be careful not to turn everybody into this stereotypical feel-good story. You made it here, so everything’s great. Life is grand now, right?” Carrillo said. “It’s so easy to fall into black and white.”
A year isn’t long enough to cover all the complexities of the immigrant experience, Carrillo added with a sigh. That the Houston Chronicle even has the resources for a series like The Million was already a stroke of luck.
“This is not as large a newsroom as it used to be,” she said. “You end up covering a lot of breaking news and bureaucracy, but everyday people with everyday struggles? We have to make time for that.”
The past few months have taken Chronicle and La Voz journalists into neighborhoods where they had never spent much time before, Carrillo said. But as it turns out, the series didn’t just help them connect with the community. It also helped them connect with each other.
“That was one of the goals: to help bring us closer together,” Carrillo said. She recalls how La Voz editor Aurora Losada had hoped her staff would one day collaborate more closely with The Chronicle’s. Even the geography of the newsroom isolated the La Voz staff. Their workplace was “physically set off” from the main newsroom.
“It’s not like people didn’t see each other or interact before, but Aurora always talked about how she’s been very tickled that we’ve actually tackled a project together,” Carrillo said. “That kind of thing wasn’t happening.”
It’s the start of a tighter relationship, one that Carrillo thinks will flourish once the Houston Chronicle and La Voz move to their new building.
As for Carrillo herself, she’s seen her own ties to the community grow stronger as she worked on The Million. Just over a year has passed since she moved from Virginia to Texas.
“I knew people talked about all the diversity here,” she said. “But getting to bring it home like that? Yeah, it’s been a very nice way to get to know Houston.”